The Expectations Game

October 22, 2016

Hillary Clinton won the Iowa Democratic caucus by a narrow margin. But because she entered the race as a strong frontrunner and was expected to win decisively, CNN’s headline for the contest read, “Bernie Sanders’ improbable revolution,” and multiple other sources hailed her opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, as the victor.

Clinton’s ability to simultaneously win and lose the caucus serves as one of many examples of the influential “expectations game,” in which candidates and campaigns seek to control media perceptions by modifying assumptions about their future performance.

In an effort to manipulate the expectations game to their own advantage, many candidates attempt to set low standards for their performance in political events like debates in order to make what they actually do seem comparatively better.

For example, prior to the first general debate of 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign staff told sources that he would do little to no preparation. As a result, political pundits had extremely low expectations — for instance, Matt Mackowiak predicted the debate would be “an apocalyptic disaster for Trump.” In the actual debate, although polls indicate Clinton won, coverage afterward portrayed the outcome as a wash.

Trump framed the debate to his advantage so that, even if his performance was worse than Clinton’s, he could still “win” as long as he avoided conspicuous blunders. Just like students who lower their parents’ expectations before a test, candidates work to lower the expectation of the media and electorate so that a ‘B’ performance is seemingly outstanding.

Over the course of a race, previous media assumptions regarding political figures can impact the final outcome. Often mass media scrutinizes candidates who are perceived as frontrunners significantly more than those labeled as “comeback kids” or “long-shots.” Clinton’s frontrunner status results in a greater emphasis on her faults regardless of who her opponent is.

According to media software analytics company Crimson Hexagon, out of all candidates, Clinton has consistently received the most negative coverage. Of course, other factors are involved in the media’s critical analysis, but Clinton’s position as a “favorite” has worsened the media’s coverage of her — as one US News article puts it, while Clinton “may win delegates, she does not win headlines.”

Over the course of a race, previous media assumptions regarding political figures can impact the final outcome. Often mass media scrutinizes candidates who are perceived as frontrunners significantly more than those labeled as “comeback kids” or “long-shots.””


More often than not, reader expectations mirror those of the press. While the media is an unavoidable presence in America, it’s critical to be aware of the influence prior expectations can exert on the tone of election coverage. By looking past the headline and creating our own opinions from facts and quotes presented in articles, we can make a well informed decision when voting opens this November.

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